Colonial Exhibitions and Human Zoos in France: 1889-1931
with Sylvie Koneski
In 1830, the French colonial expedition in Algeria marks the beginning of a new overseas empire. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the loss of the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, the country felt the need to prove it was still a great power. The ensuing new wave of colonial expansion transformed imperialism into a state mission and served to spread the idea of “the Greater France”.
In order to educate the French and rally them to this mission, a pavilion focusing on the colonies was first presented at the 1889 World Fair. Subsequent colonial exhibitions seeking to instill a sense of colonial consciousness were organized in 1906 and 1922 in Marseille, then, the greatest of all, in Paris in 1931. As the average citizen didn’t have the means to explore the Empire, the organizers brought the Empire to the average citizen.
Educational displays were supplemented by “human zoos” and entertaining spectacles performed by indigenous colonial subjects, the “inferior races” which France had a mission to “civilize”. These ethnic exhibitions illustrated the 19th century’s interest in exoticism and strangeness, but also fulfilled the desire of members of the scientific community to “collect,” put on “display” and examine the races and cultures composing France’s great new Empire.
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